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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 18

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"Whew! That was a knockout. But who got licked?" Bob went to the little sideboard and helped himself to a stiff drink.

"Did he mean it?"

"My dear, time wears away mountains, and rivers dry up, and the whole solar system is gradually running down, I believe; but dad isn't governed by any natural laws whatsoever. He's built of reinforced concrete, and time hardens him. He's impervious to rust or decay, and gravity exerts no power over him."

"Then I think you'd better make your choice to-night."

Bob's eyes opened. "I have. Don't you understand? I'm going to stand pat--that is, unless"--he hesitated, his smile was a bit uncertain--"unless you're sick of your bargain. I'm afraid you haven't come out of the deal very well. You thought I was rich-- and so did I until a moment ago--but I'm not. I've run through a good deal. I don't blame you for considering me a fine catch or for marrying me. You see, I never expected to find a girl who'd take me for anything except my money, so I'm not offended or disappointed or surprised. A bank-account looms up just as big on Fifth Avenue as it does on Amsterdam, and there aren't any more love matches over there than elsewhere. I'm not blind to my short- comings, either; there are a lot of bad habits waiting to be acquired by a chap with time and money like me. I can't live without booze; I don't know how to earn a living; I'm a corking spendthrift. That's one side. Balanced against that, I possess-- let me see--I possess a fair sense of humor. Not a very even account, is it?"

For once in his life Bob showed unmistakable self-consciousness; this was, so far as Lorelei knew, his maiden effort to be serious. He ran on hurriedly: "What I mean to convey is this: I have no regrets, no questions to ask, no reproaches. I got all I expected, and all I was entitled to when I married you. But it seems that you've been cheated, and--I'm ready to do the square thing. I'll step aside and give you another chance, if you say so."

During this little declaration Lorelei had watched him keenly; she appeared to be seriously weighing his offer.

"I was getting pretty tired of things," he added, "and I s'pose I'd have wound up in the D. T. parlors of some highly exclusive institution or behind a bath-room door with a gas-tube in my teeth. But--I met you, and you went to my head. I wanted you worse than I ever wanted anything--worse even than I ever wanted liquor. And now I have you. I've had you for one day, and that's something. I suppose it's silly to talk about starting over--I don't want to reform if I don't have to; moderation strikes me as an awful cold proposition; but it looks as if reform were indicated if I'm to keep you. I'm just an album of expensive habits, and--we're broke. Maybe I could--do something with myself if you took a hand. It's a good deal to ask of a girl like you, but"--he regarded her timidly, then averted his eyes--"if you cared to try it we MIGHT make it go for a while. And you might get to care for me a little--if I improve." Again he paused hopefully. "I've been as honest as I know how. Now, won't you be the same?"

Lorelei roused herself, and spoke with quiet decision.

"I'll go through to the end, Bob."

Bob started and uttered an inarticulate word or two; in his face was a light of gladness that went to the girl's heart. His name had risen freely to her lips; he felt as if she had laid her hand in his with a declaration of absolute trust.

"You mean that?"

She nodded.

He took her in his arms and kissed her gently; then, feeling her warm against his breast, he burst the bonds that had restrained him up to this moment and covered her face, her neck, her hair with passionate caresses. For the first time since his delirium of the night before he abandoned himself to the hunger her beauty excited, and she offered him no resistance.

At last she freed herself, and, straightening the disorder of her hair, smiled at him mistily.

"Wait. Please--"

"Beautiful!" His eyes were aflame. "You're my wife. Nothing can change that."

"Nothing except--yourself. Now, you MUST listen to me." She forced him reluctantly into his chair and seated herself opposite. He leaned forward and kissed her once more, then seized her hand and held it. At intervals he crushed his lips into its pink palm. "We must start honestly," she began. "Do you mind if I hurt you?"

"You can't hurt me so long as you don't--leave me. Your eyes have haunted me every night. I've seen the curve of your neck--your lips. No woman was ever so perfect, so maddening."

"Always that. You're not a husband at this moment; you're only a man."

He frowned slightly.

"That's what makes this whole matter so difficult," she went on. "Don't you see?"

He shook his head.

"You don't love me, you're drunk with--something altogether different to love. ... It's true," she insisted. "You show it. You don't even know the real me."

"Beauty may be only a skin disease," Bob laughed, "but ugliness goes clear to the bone."

"I married you for your money, and you married me because--I seemed physically perfect--because my face and my body roused fires in you. I think we are both pretty rotten at heart, don't you?"

"No. Anyhow, I don't care to think about it. I never won anything by thinking. Kiss me again."

She ignored his demand, with her shadowy smile. "I deliberately traded on my looks; I put myself up for a price, and you paid that price regardless of everything except your desires. We muddled things dreadfully and got our deserts. I didn't love you, I don't love you now any more than you love me; but I think we're coming to respect each other, and that is a beginning. You have longings to be something different and better; so have I. Let's try together. I have it in me to succeed, but I'm not sure about you."

"Thanks for the good cheer."

"You're afraid you can't make a living for us--I KNOW you can. I'm merely afraid you won't."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"I don't believe the liquor will let you."

"Nonsense. Any man can cut down."

"'Cutting down' won't do for us, Bob." He thrilled anew at her intimate use of his name. "The chemistry of your body demands the stuff--you couldn't be temperate in anything. You'll have to quit."

"All right. I'll quit. I divorce the demon rum; lovers once, but strangers now. I'll quit gambling, too."

Lorelei laughed. "That won't strain your will-power in the least, for half my salary goes up Amsterdam Avenue, and the rest will about run this flat."

Her listener frowned. "Forget that salary talk," he said, shortly. "D'you think I'd let you--support me? D'you think I'm THAT kind of a nosegay? When I get so I can't pay the bills I'll walk out. To- morrow you quit work, and we move to the Ritz--they know me there, and--this delightful, home-like grotto of yours gives me the colly-wabbles."

"Who will pay the hotel?" Lorelei smiled.

"Mr. George W. Bridegroom, of course. I'll get the money, never fear. I know everybody, and I've borrowed thousands of dollars when I didn't need it. My rooms at the Charlevoix are full of expensive junk; I'll sell it, and that will help. As soon as we're decently settled I'll look for a salaried job. Then watch my smoke. To quote from the press of a few months hence: 'The meteoric rise of Robert Wharton has startled the financial world, surpassing as it does the sensational success of his father. Young Mr. Wharton was seen yesterday at his Wall Street office and took time from his many duties to modestly assure our representative that his ability was inherited, and merely illustrates anew the maxim that "a chip of the old block will return after many days." That will please dad. He'll relent when I attribute my success to him."

"You must quit drinking before you begin work," said Lorelei.

"I HAVE quit."

With a person of such resilient temperament, one who gamboled through life like a faun, argument was difficult. Bob Wharton was pagan in his joyous inconsequence; his romping spirits could not be damped; he bubbled with the optimism of a Robin Goodfellow. Ahead of him he saw nothing but dancing sunshine, heard nothing but the Pandean pipes. The girl wife watched him curiously.

"I wonder if you can," she mused. "Before we begin our new life we're going to make a bargain, binding on both of us. You'll have to stop drinking. I won't live with a drunkard. I'll work until you've mastered the craving."

"No!" Bob declared, firmly. "I'll take the river before I'll let you--keep me. Why, if I--"

Lorelei rose and laid her hand over his lips, saying quietly:

"I'm planning our happiness, don't you understand? and it's a big stake. You must pocket your pride for a while. Nobody will know. We've made a botch of things so far, and there is only one way for us to win out."

"A man who'd let his wife--"

"A man who WOULDN'T let his wife have her way at first is a brute."

"You shouldn't ask it," he cried, sullenly.

"I don't ask it: I insist upon it. If you refuse we can't go on."

"Surely you don't mean that?" He looked up at her with grave, troubled eyes.

"I do. I'm entirely in earnest. You haven't strength to go out among your friends and restrain yourself. No man as far gone as you could do it."

"I've a simpler way than that," he told her, after a moment's thought. "There are institutions where they straighten fellows up. I'll go to one of those."

"No." She rejected this suggestion positively. "They only relieve; they don't cure. The appetite comes back. This is something you must do yourself, once and for all. You must fight this out in secret; this city is no place for men with appetites they can't control. Do this for me, Bob, and--and I'll let you do anything after that. I'll let you--beat me." Getting no response from him, she added gravely, "It is that or--nothing."

"I can't let you go," Bob said, finally.

"Good! We'll keep this apartment and I'll go on working--"

He hid his face in his hands and groaned. "Gee! I'm a rotter."

"You can sell your belongings at the Charlevoix, and we'll use the money. We'll need everything, for I can't piece out my salary the way I've been doing. There can't be any more supper-parties and gifts--"

"I should hope not," he growled. "I'll murder the first man who speaks to you."

"Then is it a real, binding bargain?"

"It is--if you'll bind it with another kiss," he agreed, with a miserable attempt at cheerfulness. "But I sha'n't look myself in the face."

For the first time she came to him willingly.

"Doesn't it seem nice to be honest with yourself and the world?" she sighed, after a time.

"Yes," he laughed. "I'm sorry to cut the governor adrift, but he'll have to get along without our help."

Despite his jocularity he was deeply moved. As the situation grew clearer to him he saw that this girl was about to change the whole current of his careless life; her unexpected firmness, her gentle, womanly determination at this crisis was very grateful--he desperately longed to retain its support--and yet the arrangement to which she had forced his consent went sorely against his grain. His struggle had not been easy. Her surrender to him was as complete and as unselfish as his own acquiescence seemed unmanly and weak. He rose and paced the little room to relieve his feelings. Days and weeks of almost constant dissipation had affected his mental poise quite as disastrously as the strain of the past twenty-four hours had told upon his physical control, and he was shaking nervously. He paused at the sideboard finally and poured himself a steadying drink.

Lorelei watched his trembling fingers fill the glass before she spoke.

"You mustn't touch that," she said, positively.

"Eh?" He turned, still frowning absent-mindedly. "Oh, this?" He held the glass to the light. "You mean you want me to begin--NOW? A fellow has to sober up gradually, my dear. I really need a jolt-- I'm all unstrung."

"I sealed the bargain."

"But, Lorelei--" He set the glass down with a mirthless laugh. "Of course, I won't, if you insist. I intended to taper off--a chap can't turn teetotaler the way he turns a handspring." He eyed the glass with a sudden intensity of longing. "Let's begin to-morrow. Nobody starts a new life at two A. M. And--it's all poured out."

She answered by taking the glass and flinging its contents from the open window. This done, she gathered the bottles from the sideboard--there were not many--and, opening the folding-doors that masked the kitchenette, she up-ended them over the sink. When the last gurgle had died away she went to her husband and put her arms around his neck.

"You must," she said, gently. "If you'll only let me have my way we'll win. But, Bob, dear, it's going to be a bitter fight."

Lorelei's family spent most of the night in discussing their great good fortune. Even Jim, worn out as he was by his part in the events connected with the marriage, sat until a late hour planning his sister's future, and incidentally his own. After he had gone to bed mother and father remained in a glow of exhilaration that made sleep impossible, and it was nearly dawn when they retired to dreams of hopes achieved and ambitions realized.

About nine-thirty on the following morning, just when the rival Wall Street forces were gathering, Hannibal Wharton called up the Knight establishment.

Mrs. Knight was impatient and at first refused to be disturbed, but when the servant at last made it plain that it was Hannibal C. Wharton, not his son Robert, calling, she leaped from her bed with the agility of an acrobat.

"Peter," she cried, "it's Mr. Wharton himself!"

Peter likewise awoke to a tremendous excitement. "He probably wants to get acquainted," exclaimed the invalid. "Tell him to come right up. I can see him any time."

His wife was nervously pinning up her straggling hair, as if she feared the millions of the steel baron gave him the occult power to direct his vision along the wire.

"What shall I say to him?" she gasped. "I suppose I'll have to call on him and Mrs. Wharton, but I haven't a thing to wear."

"For God's sake, don't mention money," implored Peter. "Try to be pleasant for once in your life. Better let me talk to him."

But at this suggestion Mrs. Knight flared up angrily. "You stay where you are!" she snapped. "I know how to handle rich people."

"Mathilda," he shouted, as she hurried from the room, her slippers slapping loosely, a discolored wrapper clutched over her bony chest, "when he talks about Lorelei, cry for him. She's our only daughter and our only support, see? We can't bear to let her go. If you'd only help me to the 'phone--"

The retort that came back was shrewish, but the next instant Mathilda's voice became as honey.

"How DO you do, Mr. Wharton?" she was bubbling. "I didn't mean to keep you waiting, but I couldn't imagine ... Yes, this is Lorelei's mother. I'm all upset over the marriage, and of course you are, too; but young people do the strangest things nowadays, don't they? We forgave them, of COURSE--one COULDN'T be angry with Robert, he's such a...What?"

Peter Knight let himself back into his bed with a feeble curse. Women were such hysterical fools. What man could swallow that sickly society tone? Then he lifted himself again, round-eyed with apprehension. In that attitude he remained frozen.

"Why, Mr. Wharton!" came echoing through the door. "How CAN you say such a thing? ... We knew nothing about it ... We did not ... She's a good girl ... I'll have you understand you're talking to her mother ... He is not; Jim is a ... Oh! ... You talk like an old fool ... I ... You ..."

The sickly society tone was no longer in evidence. Mathilda's voice was shrill and furious; it rose higher with every second. Peter shouted; he struggled with the bed-clothes. Meanwhile his wife appeared to be having a fit. Had a grounded wire poured an electric shock into her body she could not have clung to the instrument with more desperate tenacity. She writhed; her broken cries were plainly wrung from her by nothing less than agony.

At last there came a cessation of her incoherence and a tinkling of the bell as she furiously vibrated the hook.

"Hello! ... Hello! ... Central ... My party rang off. ... Hello!"

The door of Jim's room burst open.

"What the devil?" he cried.

"Mathilda! Mathilda!" wailed Peter.

Mrs. Knight rushed into her husband's presence like a destroying angel. Jim followed in his pajamas. She was more disheveled than ever, her eyes were rolling, her cheeks were livid, her hair seemed to bristle from its fastenings. She was panting in a labored effort to relieve her feelings.

"What's the matter, ma?"

"Matter? Hell! That was Hannibal Wharton!" stormed the invalid.

"It's--all over," shrilled Mrs. Knight. "He won't have it. He's cut them off. He called me a--a--" Once more she choked in her rage; her teeth chattered. "BOB'S BROKE!"

"Wait a minute," Jim cried, roughly. "Let's hear all about it before you bite somebody. Is Wharton sore?"

"He's crazy. He said we trapped Bob. He called us grafters and thieves and blackmailing parasites--"

"Rats! Bob's got money of his own."

"Not a cent. He's in debt. And the old man won't give him a dollar until he's divorced."

"I don't believe it," protested Jim.

Peter mocked at them, his bloated, pasty face convulsed with anger. "Fine job you made of it, you two. So THIS is your grand match. THIS is how you put us on Easy Street, eh? You married the girl to a bum. Why didn't you look him up?"

"Why didn't YOU?" screamed his wife. "YOU didn't say anything. Everybody thinks he's rich--"

"He is, too," Jim asserted. "He must be. Old Wharton is bluffing, but--We'll find out. Get into your dress, ma. We'll see Bob. I've got an ace buried, and if that dirty loafer sold us out I'll put him over the jumps. He can't double-cross ME, understand; I've got the goods on him, and on all of 'em."

"Oh, we've been double-crossed, all right," sneered Peter. "Lorelei's down and out now. She's no good any more. I guess you'll listen to me next time."

His son turned upon him furiously, crying:

"Shut up! Or I'll--" He left his threat unfinished and rushed back to his room, muttering under his breath. As he flung himself into his clothes he could hear the quarrel still raging between the other two, and he lifted his clenched hands above his head with an oath.

"Fuss, fight, and fury," he wailed. "Fine place for a nervous guy! If I don't end in a mad-house I'll be lucky." _

Read next: Chapter 19

Read previous: Chapter 17

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